Is the SSPX in Schism?
The official position of the Society of Saint Pius X must cause acute disquiet to every Catholic mind. If we are agreed that Benedict XVI is not a true head of the Catholic Church, but rather head of a schismatic and heretical counter-church, masquerading as the Church of Christ for the perdition of souls, plainly it is a dangerous error to think that he is the pope. Thus far, nearly all sedevacantists are agreed. Some, but not all, go further still, claiming that by virtue of its recognition of Benedict XVI the SSPX is in a state of schism from the true Catholic Church: its clergy and the faithful who frequent its Mass centres are thus held to be non-Catholics. The purpose of this article is to examine whether this view is solidly founded.
If we are to establish whether the SSPX is in fact in schism, obviously we must examine the arguments advanced by those who think that it is. As several different arguments have been used, we shall do our best to set out the main ones and examine them.
The validity of any conclusion depends on the reasoning that leads to it. We must set out this reasoning without short cuts if we are to evaluate it fairly. If you want to show that the SSPX is in schism, you must be able to state, and prove, a general proposition to the effect that “all those who do such-and-such a thing, or all those who say such-and-such a thing, are schismatics”. Then you must show that the SSPX say or do the thing in question. The first of these statements is called your major premise and the second is called your minor premise. If both are true, your conclusion follows: the SSPX is in schism.
I have tried to list below all the various suggested major premises I have encountered over the last quarter century during which I have been discussing this question, and I have tried to formulate them clearly and fairly. Here they are:
Suggested Universal Propositions
1. “Anyone who recognises as pope one who is not pope is a schismatic.”
2. “Anyone who recognises as pope a man whom he then habitually disobeys is a schismatic.”
3. “Anyone who recognises as pope one who is not pope but is instead head of a schismatic sect is a schismatic.”
4. “Anyone who recognises as pope a heretic is himself a schismatic.”
5. “Anyone who on his own admission belongs to a religion, which is in fact schismatic is himself a schismatic by virtue of belonging to it.”
It will be found, I think, that any arguments used to show that the SSPX is in schism are based on one or more of these general statements.
Bishop Sanborn’s Dilemma
For instance, many years ago I heard Mr. Martin Gwynne of Britons Catholic Library formulate a dilemma, which slightly adapted, Bishop Sanborn has now made famous. Here it is, in its current form: Either Benedict XVI is pope or he isn’t. Horn 1. If he is, the SSPX is in schism for refusing him due submission in doctrine and discipline. Horn 2. If he is not, they are in schism by virtue of their adherence to a false pope…
It will be noted that the first horn of this dilemma is included purely for its psychological effect, since those who use it do not accept its premise that Benedict XVI is, or might be, a true pope. The second horn – the only one that really matters – depends on my premise 1 listed above, or on one of its more restrictive variants, premises 3 and 4. It is fairer in any event thus to separate the two horns of the dilemma, for each argument is either valid in itself or it isn’t and no accumulation or alternation of arguments that are not 100% water-tight in themselves can lead to a safe conclusion.
Against this background, let us now take a more detailed look at each of the five proposed major premises. In doing so, we recall that the onus lies on those who advance one or more of them to prove it or them to be true. However, this does not preclude us from giving a helping hand by pointing out apparent weaknesses or arguments that cannot possibly be true. By refuting in advance any of these premises, if our disproof is beyond dispute, we have saved its defendants the effort of seeking for proofs and have restricted the field to those arguments that may be worth defending.
Our disproofs may be of two kinds. Either we may adduce an authority affirming the opposite of what the premise claims, or we may adduce a counter-example. Some explanation is perhaps needed as to why a counter-example disproves the premise. For instance, in the case of the first premise, which alleges that, “Anyone who recognises as pope one who is not pope is a schismatic,” we can at once point out the counter-proof of Saint Vincent Ferrer and many others who, at the time of the Great Western Schism, gave their allegiance to one who was (almost certainly) not truly pope, whereas the most respected Catholic scholars do not consider that they were in schism. Now this exception suffices to prove beyond cavil that premise 1 is false. The reason is that for the premise to have any value as the foundation of an argument it must be universally true. And even a single exception is enough to show that a statement is not universally true. A statement that purportedly applies to every case is false if there is even a single case to which it does not apply.
Hence it is no reply to observe (quite accurately) that there is a world of difference between the Great Western Schism (when all papal claimants were of sound doctrine) and the post-Vatican II débâcle (when the opposite applies). As a refutation of the suggested universal premise the two cases do not have to resemble one another in any other respect save that both concern adherence to a non-pope. Some other universal proposition may be constructed (such as numbers 3 or 4) to which the case of Saint Vincent Ferrer does not furnish an exception; but premise number 1 is ruled forever out of court by the fact that it is not universally true, and therefore cannot be the single, all-sufficient basis whereby to prove that any particular person or group is necessarily schismatic.
Having thus disposed of the first suggested major premise, let us now look at the second:
2. “Anyone who recognises as pope a man whom he then habitually disobeys is a schismatic.”
As stated, this premise leaves open the question of whether the man recognised as pope really is pope or is not. The reason for this omission is of course that Benedict XVI is not in fact pope, but the conclusion aimed at is that habitual disobedience to him nonetheless constitutes an act of schism on the part of one who thinks that he is pope.
But is it in fact true that any act whatever of disobedience or rupture of communion with a false pope constitutes schism from the Catholic Church?
It must certainly be granted that a Catholic who intentionally separates himself from due submission to one he believes to be pope is guilty before God of the malice of the sin of schism. But is he guilty before the Church of the delict of schism, which separates him from juridical membership of her and qualifies him as a schismatic? However surprising it may appear, nothing in the definitions of schism given by theologians authorises such an idea. Similarly, a Catholic may culpably refuse to believe a truth he is certain God has revealed. Before God he is guilty of the same malice as is essentially contained in the sin of heresy, but this remains a matter of conscience between him and God. The Church cannot judge or condemn him as a heretic, because as a matter of fact the truth in question does not belong to her deposit of faith (see de Lugo, de Virtute Fidei Divinæ, disp. xx, sect. ii). The analogy between schism and heresy is very close: the refusal to submit to a man one thinks is pope, but who in fact isn’t, is a grave sin, but it is not true schism. Other things being equal, the culprit remains a Catholic, though obviously a very bad one. The priest in the confessional can take cognizance of the sin if it is confessed, but the Church can take no external cognizance of it: refusal to submit to a man as pope, who is not pope, is not by its nature a sinful act; it incurs no censure, it does not separate one from Catholic communion. Those who think that members of the SSPX are guilty before God of the malice of the sin of schism are judging the internal forum – a matter which (a) Christian morality normally forbids us to judge and which (b) has no consequence in the external forum even if our conjectures about it are correct. But my intention today is not to oppose the view that SSPX-members are black-souled reprobates, or that they deserve to be in schism; it is to ask whether they are in schism as the Church defines that term.
It remains interesting to enquire whether the attitude of the SSPX towards Benedict XVI has a prima facie appearance of schismatic dispositions. This writer may be mistaken, but he cannot see that it has. The reason is that the habitual refusal to obey Benedict is certainly a good act, founded on the correct judgment that his acts are habitually destructive of the Church and of the faith itself and that they are so pervaded by an antichristian spirit as to make any attempt to sift them impossible. Now up to that point, sedevacantists all concur that the SSPX is right. What we deplore is that they fail to pursue their reasoning and observe that, for this reason and many others, it is impossible that he should be a true pope. But surely it would be hypocritical to condemn them as guilty of a moral fault for having made a judgment, which is correct as far as it goes and for observing behaviour (habitual disobedience), which is correct as far as it goes?
We are not faced here with a prior judgment, (a) “this man is a pope”, followed by (b) “but I will habitually disobey him”. The first judgment is (a) “it is impossible for a Catholic to give habitual obedience to this man”, and the second is (b) “but given his election and widespread recognition and the possibility that he may not be pertinacious in his heresies, we dare not judge that he is not pope and therefore continue to acknowledge him as such, subject to the overwhelming priority that this recognition will never constrain us to join his campaign of destruction of the Church, and will never be more than nominal until he publicly returns to the traditional Catholic faith.” To my mind this does not derive from, or reveal, a schismatic attitude: it manifests good will assorted with bad (all right, calamitous) judgment.
It would be unfair to object: “So they escape the guilt of schism by the good fortune that the pope they decide to cut themselves off from happens in reality not to be pope?” That suggests that the SSPX decided to refuse submission to the Roman Pontiff before having taken cognizance of the genuine impossibility for the Catholic conscience of submission to the Vatican II “popes”.
It should also be borne in mind that even habitual disobedience to a legitimate pontiff is not entirely inadmissible in sound theology: such habitual disobedience would be perfectly legitimate, for instance, if the pope were imprisoned and the faithful were unable to be certain that his communications were free. That is not the case with Benedict, but it is a warning against exaggeration.
Any trained logicians among our readers may appreciate a reply in due scholastic form to the proposition, “Anyone who recognises as pope a man whom he then habitually disobeys is a schismatic.” The reply is: Distinguo: that he is a schismatic (i.e. religiously separated) from the usurper in question, concedo. That he is a schismatic from the Catholic Church, subdistinguo: if the man is in fact pope, concedo; if he is not in fact pope, nego.
Allegiance Without Obedience
3. “Anyone who recognises as pope one who is not pope but is instead head of a schismatic sect is a schismatic.”
This seems to me the most superficially convincing of the arguments put forward by those who hold that the SSPX is in schism. The argument is in fact usually formulated in slightly different terms, as follows: “If you recognise as head of your religion a man who is in fact head of a false religion, you show that you yourself belong to the false religion of which he is the head.”
Thus expressed, it is not surprising that many have found the argument plausible, but it should be noted that this plausibility in fact depends very largely on the formulation. For as a matter of fact no adherent of Benedict XVI spontaneously expresses his religious affiliation by saying, “I recognise Benedict XVI as head of my religion.” The typical SSPX-er will say, in fact, “I recognize Benedict XVI as head of the Catholic Church.” And the difference is surely crucial. If a man had the predominant intention of being a member of the religion of which Benedict XVI is head, whatever that religion might be, it would be exceedingly hard to defend him against the accusation of schism, for the state of mind and will determining his affiliation is not Catholic and the religion of which Benedict is in reality head is not Catholic either. But if his predominant intention is to be a member of the Catholic Church, and his recognition of Benedict XVI is exclusively due to the mistaken conviction that Benedict XVI is in fact head of the Catholic Church, this by no means follows. His dispositions are Catholic and his error relates to a question of fact: is Benedict XVI pope or not?
Moreover there is no way of concluding by a pure process of logic that anyone believing Benedict to be head of the Catholic Church is therefore a member of the false Church of which Benedict is head. That would be like claiming that if an Iraqi (erroneously but understandably) believed George Bush to be president of Iraq, his misunderstanding would automatically make him an American citizen. We must therefore examine this argument from the point of view of theology and Canon Law, rather than of pure logic. But when we do so, we find that it remains just as impossible to substantiate.
The first difficulty it presents is that it violates the definition of schism given in Canon 1325§2 of the Code of Canon Law, taken textually from St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiæ: “A schismatic is one who, having received baptism and while continuing to call himself a Christian, refuses to be subject to the Supreme Pontiff or to communicate with those members of the Church who are subject to him.”
The definition speaks of refusal to be subject to a true pope. It does not mention recognition of a false pope. Naturally when the Holy See is occupied by a true and certain pope, recognition of a false claimant will entail refusal of the true one. But when the Holy See is vacant, the belief that it is occupied does not as such constitute schism as the Church defines it. Moreover the Church expressly forbids us to expand the scope of her criminal and penal legislation: the axiom insists that “favores convenit ampliari, odia restringi” – all that is burdensome should be interpreted in its minimal sense whereas favours should be understood generously. And indeed Canonists teach, following Canon 2229§2, that the law penalising schism is one of those which “require full knowledge and deliberation [so that] any diminution of imputability, whether on the part of the intellect or on the part of the will, excuses from all latæ sententiæ penalties.” (See, for instance, Vermeersch: Epitome Juris Canonici, III, n. 311 and de Cancé: Commentaire, III, n. 273)
There is an excellent reason also why the two acts (adhesion to a false pope and refusal of a true pope) are not in all cases equivalent. When the Church has a true and certain pope, submission to him is necessarily the touchstone of Catholic communion, for the pope is an active unifying principle able to impose teachings and laws, which the whole Church must accept. But when the Holy See is vacant, the vacancy – a purely negative state – is in no sense a unifying principle. Certainly the recognition of the vacancy protects the faithful from being led astray into error by a false pope teaching false doctrine, but as a matter of fact the SSPX, though they do not recognise the vacancy, have not been led by the false pope into his false doctrines as they indignantly refuse them.
Argument number 3 also violates the requirement of pertinacity as an essential element of schism. The Bulla Cœnæ excommunicates “schismatics and all those who pertinaciously [knowingly and willingly] withdraw from obedience to the reigning pontiff.” Canon 1325§2 defines schismatics as refusing submission to the pope. St. Thomas Aquinas emphasises that schismatics “are those who wilfully and intentionally separate themselves from the unity of the Church”. (Summa Theologiæ, ii-ii, q. 39, a. 1) Thus even if recognition of a false pope were of itself a schismatic act, before accusing of schism those who recognise Benedict XVI as a pope, it would be necessary to demonstrate that they willed and intended their separation from the authentic traditional Catholic Church. In the case of the SSPX this would be difficult. Those who mistakenly imagine that pertinacity is presumed in every case of error are respectfully referred to the present writer’s detailed refutation of that view in the French-language study Le Canon 2200§2 et la Pertinacité.
Major premise no. 3 also implies that every current member of the Catholic Church is an ex-schismatic and that the Church ceased to have any demonstrable existence during the 1960s. It implies this because if one ceases to be a Catholic every time one recognises a false pope as true, this must apply right from the start of the current vacancy of the Holy See. Practically all of those who regard the SSPX as schismatics hold that the Holy See has been vacant since 1958, but even if we opt for 1963 or 1965 this makes no essential difference to the problem. Despite occasional rumours and boasts there is no proof that anyone at all believed the Holy See to be vacant during the pontificate of John XXIII; there is no proof that anyone at all believed the Holy See to be vacant from the moment of Paul VI’s election or even from his promulgation of Vatican II. And the very first to declare the Holy See vacant did not consider that all who had not yet reached this conclusion were in schism. Thus if membership of the Catholic Church depends on not being in communion with the conciliar anti-popes, there was for a considerable time no visible Catholic Church anywhere in the world. This is of course a heretical notion, as is the idea that the Church could overnight be reduced to half-a-dozen unidentifiable members without anyone noticing or commenting on this apostasy.
This argument further implies that one can cease to be a member of the Catholic Church unconsciously, by accident, and without any moral fault. However the Council of Trent quotes St. Augustine to the effect that God “never deserts unless He is deserted”. One cannot be truly excluded from the one communion of salvation without committing an outwardly and inwardly grave fault directly opposed to that communion.
It also violates the principle that membership of the Catholic Church can only ever depend on what the Church has directly declared. In the case of doctrine, St. Thomas says that, “no one departs from the faith of the Church unless he knows that what he is departing from is the faith of the Church”. (Dist. xiii, q. 1, a. 3 and q. 2 a. 1) The same principle applies to ecclesial unity: it is at present a truth, which men can be certain of, that the Church lacks a visible head. But this truth has not yet been directly communicated to us by the Church. If we make it into a condition of membership of the Church, we are adding, on our own authority, to the number of those conditions. Prior to Vatican II ignorant and sinful folk who never went to Mass after their Catholic Baptism, knew only the most elementary doctrines, and often enough didn’t even know the name of the reigning pontiff, let alone take any notice of him, were still considered to be members of the Church. How can the special obscurity of our days have caused additional conditions, previously unheard of, to be added to those known in the past?
Submission to a Heretic
With that we may pass to premise 4: “Anyone who recognises a heretic as pope is himself a schismatic (or a heretic).”
The problem here is that Cajetan, Suarez, John of St. Thomas, Bouix, Journet and other theologians believe that even a manifest heretic can still be pope. So far are they from considering it an act of schism to recognise him, that they hold it to be obligatory. Readers may well join me in rejecting and deploring this dangerous view, but we cannot hold that it is an act of grievous heterodoxy to adhere to the uncondemned opinion of such respected scholars.
Of course the fact that the Vatican II “popes” teach grave error in circumstances, which would not be possible for a true pope, confirms our conviction that they are not popes. But it does not help the conclusion that those who think that they are popes are schismatics. St. James of the Marches considers this very case:
“…supposing that a pope were heretical, and not publicly condemned, still bearing his office; supposing that a simple person, not a public person, enquired of that Lord Pope concerning the unity of the Faith, and the pope then instructed him in that heresy, which he himself held for a truth; then the man thus instructed, if he be not made conscious [of his error] from some other quarter, is not to be adjudged an heretic, seeing that he believeth himself to be instructed in the Catholic Faith.” (Quoted in Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, ed. Edward Peters, London, Scolar, 1980, p. 248)
Here we see the hypothesis of a Catholic not only recognising the uncondemned heretical claimant to the papacy, but also actually adopting his heresies and we still see a canonised saint reluctant to condemn him. We are a million miles from any universal premise to the effect that such submission is necessarily a schismatic act.
And it will be noted that Pope Paul IV’s bull Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio, while insisting that the heretic cannot be pope, in no way condemns anyone for having adhered to him. It repeatedly insists that no blame of censure can fall on those who withdraw, however belatedly, from obedience to the heretic. It is clearly no part of the pope’s thinking that blame and censure do fall, ipso facto, on all those who have failed to withdraw.
Adherence to the Conciliar Church
5. “Anyone who on his own admission belongs to a religion which is in fact schismatic is himself a schismatic by virtue of belonging to it.”
This argument is a blatant case of what is called “begging the question”, i.e. presuming the very point under discussion. Whether or not this major premise is true in the abstract, it is clearly fallacious to apply it to the SSPX, since they emphatically deny belonging to the Conciliar Church.
It is riposted that they have denounced but not renounced the Conciliar Church. But for them to renounce it, they must once have been in it. The truth is that, while refusing to be members of the organisation, they insist on being nominal subjects of the organisation’s head (because they erroneously believe he is also technically head of the Catholic Church). But it is membership of the organisation that has to be demonstrated for this argument to work as proof of schism.
It must be shown that the SSPX avowedly belongs to the new religion which has emerged from Vatican II. There can be no purpose in discussing what would be the consequences of such adherence until we have established whether or not the SSPX in fact profess any such thing. But when we consider their statements on the subject we observe that, far from professing to adhere to it, those entitled to speak for the SSPX insist that they do not belong to it and have no wish whatever to do so. “To be publicly associated with the sanction [of excommunication] would be a mark of honour and a sign of orthodoxy before the faithful, who have a strict right to know that the priests they approach are not in communion with a counterfeit Church…” (Open Letter to Cardinal Gantin, July 6, 1988, signed by 24 SSPX superiors). Countless similar statements have been made which there is no need to recite here.
There can be no difficulty in pointing out the absurdity of this inconsistency. If they reject the Conciliar Church, they ought above all to reject its head and not claim that he is somehow head of two different religions, only one of which they belong to. But however strong this objection may be, it cannot alter the fact that the SSPX do not professedly belong to the Conciliar Church. They profess to reject it outright. We cannot foist consistency on them by violence in order to make it easier to argue against them. Their conviction that Ratzinger, though head of a false religion which he believes in and energetically propagates, is also technically head of the Catholic religion, many of whose doctrines he disbelieves and which he endeavours to destroy, is false, dangerous and disastrous, but it cannot be equated with the statement, “We adhere to the new religion that has emerged from Vatican II.”
Any serious debate requires each party to make some serious effort to understand the position of the other. I have every sympathy with sedevacantists who find it hard to make any sense of the position of the SSPX; I request them to follow a brief analogy in the hope of making some progress. Suppose you are a soldier in the army of Ruritania, a nation at war with its neighbour Sandiwavia. Suppose that the Commander-in-Chief of your army becomes increasingly lukewarm in leading the war against Sandiwavia and finally adopts strategies entirely favourable to Sandiwavia and disastrous to his own nation, Ruritania. Most of the Ruritanian army obediently follow him and in a short time Ruritania is all but defeated. However a small number of soldiers in the Ruritanian army remain loyal to their nation. They all see that it would be an act of treachery to follow the lead of the Commander-in-Chief, thus playing into the hands of Sandiwavia. They refuse to do so. But soon inevitable disagreements emerge even among those who are loyal to Ruritania and its cause. Some feel sure that the CIC’s defection is the result of confusion, or that he has been drugged. They continually press him to return to defend the true needs of his own nation. They send occasional embassies to try to reason with him, though these never meet with success, so far has the CIC drunk in the Sandiwavian propaganda. Nonetheless the ambassadors observe that the CIC always speaks of Ruritania as his nation and appears to be convinced that his pro-Sandiwavian policy is in fact favourable to Ruritania. Others insist that the CIC has committed treachery and, by going over to the enemy, has lost any status in Ruritania. This disagreement soon becomes a bitter dispute: those who reject outright the traitor CIC are often inclined to consider anyone who still considers him to be the legitimate Ruritanian CIC as a conniver at treachery. They invoke in favour of their position common sense, legal texts and the absurd consequences that would flow if the legitimate leader of an army at war were in fact fighting for the other side. Those soldiers who, though loyal to Ruritania, refuse completely to disown the CIC, dispute the meaning of the legal texts and point out the chaos that emerges if private individuals are able to reject their superior officers on the basis of their own judgment. They observe that injustice may easily be committed, as the CIC may be of good will and led astray as the result of an illness or drugs. They point out that fidelity to Ruritania is possible even without making any decision about the status of the CIC.
No difficulty will be found in adapting the analogy into our present situation. Does it help understand why a man can hold the milder position without being a traitor, and therefore – mutatis mutandis – why a man may mistakenly hold the SSPX position without being a schismatic?
I must beg the reader’s pardon if he is disappointed. But I am unable to see that any of the suggested major premises holds water. And thus I am unable to accept the conclusion that the SSPX is in schism, for I can find no universal premise permitting an argument to be begun, which might lead to that conclusion.
I am aware that other, less direct, arguments are possible. I have heard it said, for instance, that if the SSPX are not in schism we might as well conclude that the Anglicans are not either. But of course the Anglicans do not claim to belong to the “Church of Rome” and profess no submission, nominal or otherwise to the Holy See. I have heard it said that the considerations advanced in this article weaken our case against Ratzinger himself. But that is due to confusion: some sedevacantists do indeed use simplistic or fallacious arguments against the Bavarian pretender, and the refutation of their favourite sophisms will indeed appear to them to weaken their case. But it does not weaken the real case. The weeding out of invalid arguments in favour of a true position is highly desirable: it allows the valid ones to appear in all their strength and protects the truth against apparent refutation.
Others argue that instead of looking at what disqualifies the SSPX from being Catholics, we should see if they possess what qualifies them to be considered Catholics – and very often allusions are added to the Church’s four marks. But it is the Church, not individuals, that possesses the four marks. For an individual to be a member of the Church he must be baptised and not frustrate the effects of baptism by heresy, schism or incurring the status of excomunicatus vitandus. No other condition exists.
Others again are content to argue that this or that wise and holy priest disagrees (or, if deceased, disagreed) with my conclusion. To which I can only reply that, since wisdom and holiness do not actually replace proofs, I invite the surviving wise and holy priests to state clearly the definitely true universal proposition from which they reach their conclusion.
Meanwhile, my own provisional view, that the SSPX, though in grave error, is not in schism, also seems to me to chime in much better with the judgements of the Holy See to the effect that not even all members of the Communist Party, or of the schismatic Czechoslovakian pseudo-Catholic Action, or signatories to the schismatic French revolutionary “civil constitution of the clergy” prior to its express condemnation, were to be considered as ipso facto excluded from membership of the Church. (See Replies of Holy Office 20th June 1949 and 1st July 1949, and Quod Aliquantum of Pope Pius VI, 10th March 1791.)
© John S. Daly 2007
This article first appeared in The Four Marks.